Understanding the Farm Bill: Between Workshops and Panels

The Farm Bill. It’s here. It’s now. And it’s complex as all hell.

When info sessions on the Farm Bill were held in East and West Oakland last summer by the CA Food and Justice Coalition and the Oakland Food Policy Council, attendees took part in a discussion of the history and structure of the Farm Bill . After navigating through the policy, the top changes they reported wanting to see would be for more community education on pertinent issues, and increased local support for urban agriculture. At the Horace Albright lecture on the Farm Bill at UC Berkeley on April 5th, a distinguished panel of speakers that included Ken Cook, Michael Pollan, Karen Ross, and Ken Hecht  showed concern for similar issues, namely continued support of SNAP, how to understand the Farm Bill, and how California’s interests are represented in relation to those of the country, in particular the other stakeholders who hold sway on the allocation of funding.

Ken Hecht, a past Director of the California Food Policy Advocates, opened the evening with a discussion of SNAP, defending it staunchly against much of the rhetoric that is defaming it the presidential campaign today. He cited four main reasons to preserve SNAP:

  1. It’s enormous! Its funding allocation amounted in 2011 to nearly 80% of the farm bill- $78 billion dollars in 2011. But this money goes to help 46.5 million Americans- a stunning figure that represents 1 in 7 Americans!
  2. SNAP caters to people of even the lowest income, reducing severe hunger. Twenty five percent of recipients use up all benefits in first week. Studies have shown that calorie intake is lower at end of the month than in the beginning.
  3. SNAP is effective! There are 1.3 million children who get enough to eat because of SNAP! It removes consequences of food insecurity, fostering academic opportunity, social development, and even something as basic as physical development. It saves money in health care costs by providing funds for people to pursue a healthy diet, avoiding obesity and diabetes. And it supports our local economy, with 1 dollar spent on SNAP correlating to 1.79 of economic activity.
  4. We can improve it! SNAP needs to work on promoting the connection between nutrition and health! This program is working for people who desperately need it. But if we chop 4 billion from it, part of the proposed plan, it would  either the benefits offered to participants or it reduces participants.

Michael Pollan, a well-known local figure in journalism and food politics, described our shift to industrial agriculture in the late 40s, and how since then we’ve continued to shift from a systemt centered photosynthesis and energy from the sun to an economy fueled by fossil fuels, in our chemical fertilizers as well as our automobiles. This was driven by a desire to improve yields, and indeed it did; we got to a point to where a single farmer could feel 148 Americans, the most productive human ever! As Pollan put it, “This effort has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams!”

How then can we use this perspective to navigate through the legal jargon of the Farm Bill?

Pollan maintained that the main question we should bear in mind when judging components of the bill should be the following: Is this pushing agriculture back onto the sun, or leaving it on fossil fuels?

We need to ask farmers to help us with dealing with this environmental and public health crisis. In the same way we asked for, and received, an abundance of cheap calories, now we need to ask for real foods and a solarized system. 

The two final speakers, Karen Ross, the Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and Ken Cook, President and Co-Founder of the Environmental Working Group,  presented a view of the Farm Bill from a governmental view.

Ross discussed California’s role in the Farm Bill,  as we are a major producer of specialty foods. As a result, the majority of our crops are not part of the farm bill, so our farmers must react to the market. An important goal, Ross noted, needs to be to get our large congressional delegation on the same page, where their collective voice could be heard.

Conservation is another topic that resonates through CA agriculture, targeting air quality and water usage, among many other components. However, the main challenge of the farm bill must also address poverty in rural areas, and especially the dire need for new farmers. For every 5 farmers over 60 years of age, there is only 1 around age 25.  We need to recruit farmers, and the only way to do that is to ensure that they can grow what they need to, and be able to do so in a sustainable way.

Ken Cook, however, offered a more down-to-earth perspective on the Farm Bill, discussing how much of the action taken is driven by the agriculture committee, who are expected to secure subsidies for their districts. “Some believe in conservation and some believe in nutrition”, Cook said, “but what drives this debate is how to secure the billions that they require.” He also addressed several key things at stake in the bill, the first being conservation. In terms of sustainability, Cook claimed that we are making the same mistake with new technology as we plow up conservation investments and grasslands, causing tragedies for wildlife and water quality. He cited the Farm Bill as  being not only important for food policy, but also the  most important environmental legislation for the country.

Cook also called for support of programs that protect the minimal and fledgling programs to inject healthy eating into the Farm Bill. This would include things like the Fruit and Vegetable snack program, which was a pilot program at several schools, including Oakland, where kids would get a snack in the morning and afternoon. Some kids would be introduced to fruits and vegetables that they had never heard of!

The last call was for a reform of the subsidy system. More than a quarter of a trillion dollars has been paid out since 1925, and the distribution of this money has been contested; he cited one cotton farmer as having received 2 million dollars, the equivalent of the bill’s entire budget for organic research, and 60% of farmers receive no subsidies.

The evening ended with a call to action by each panelist, and even more from the audience. “I’m all for voting with your forks,” said Pollan. “But you should also vote with your votes!” Pollan’s website, as well as that of the Environmental Working Group, was cited for having references to key moments to get involved in ways like calling your legislator and showing up at important meetings.

But the conversation doesn’t end there, nor are all of the Farm Bill’s complexities suddenly elucidated. Just yesterday, the Senate Agricultural Panel approved a measure to cut $4 billion dollars from SNAP, which will apparently crack down on misuse of the program. This measure will also include a new model of crop insurance and conservation. Even this simplified article raises questions about what it will mean to the average consumer to have  crop insurance instead of direct payments, and it’s difficult to simplify into ‘does it shift us back to the sun?’ perspective. The perhaps most logical way to ensure transparency and understanding maybe simply what our city’s residents  called for in the first place; community talks and discussions of the implications of each step in the process. These talks are happening and continue to happen; it is our task, then, to make sure that the access to informaton is widespread, to prevent further disparities in both access to food and understanding in how it happens. For more information about workshops on the Farm Bill, and how to co-host one in your community check out CA Food and Justice Coalition’s website.

Interested in hearing the Horace Albright lectures firsthand? Check out the video recording of the event here.

By Danielle Nahal, OFPC Intern

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